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Northwestern says it won’t let last season’s slide happen again

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The facts: 11 a.m., ESPN2, 720-AM.

Updated: November 14, 2012 2:59PM

Northwestern players and coaches have been preparing for this moment since last season ended.

It’s why coach Pat Fitzgerald has emphasized building depth since the start of the season. It convinced players to spend their summer working and hanging out to improve chemistry and accountability. It echoed in the make-big-things-small message Navy SEALs delivered after a grueling preseason team-building exercise.

It all was done to ensure what happened last season doesn’t happen again.

‘‘It’s all about refocusing,’’ defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said. ‘‘It’s about how we respond. I don’t think we took the right attitude last year. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue this year at all. You learn from everything that happens. You learn how to respond and how not to respond. That’s definitely something this team has taken away.’’

The Wildcats were 2-0 last season when they lost to Army 21-14. That disappointment snowballed into a five-game losing streak that sabotaged their Big Ten title hopes.

There’s little fear that NU’s 39-28 loss last Saturday to Penn State has pushed it to a similar precipice, but the meat of its conference schedule awaits.

If the Wildcats hope to rise up in a season when the Big Ten is bowing down, they need to start playing their best football starting with their game Saturday against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.

‘‘Early in the season, it’s easy to stay together when we’re winning and happy and everyone is healthy,’’ linebacker David Nwabuisi said. ‘‘The real adversity comes when you get a loss, when someone important goes down. That’s when everything starts getting tested.

‘‘This is a big week for us. We have to adjust. We have to focus. That’s why we built that chemistry all offseason.’’

NU is healthier than it was last season, especially at quarterback. It’s more mature, and some of the fissures that might have existed last season are no longer issues. The Wildcats are much better defensively, even if their lack of a pass rush continues to be a liability. There haven’t been as many individual and collective collapses as there were last season, either.

Negative momentum snowballed from play to play and from game to game a season ago. Fitzgerald tweaked his methodology with the hope that no longer will be the case.

‘‘We’re a different team,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘We learned a lot from a year ago. We do have a good mix of guys who were a part of that experience a year ago that were on the field. We’re going to lean on our leadership, which has been solid to this point. Those guys need to be the catalyst.’’

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